Thursday, 3 November 2011

Simon Aspinall 1958-2011

I am writing this, with tears streaming down my cheeks.  How can one put a life time of friendship and memories down on paper? It seems so inadequate somehow.

 I suppose, I should start at the beginning, and that beginning, was Noss, on Shetland in the middle 1970’s. It was a bright summer’s day, with that cool Shetland wind, that is so prevalent.  I was standing at the top of a very high cliff, a myriad of seabirds were wheeling & calling below.  I was  cocky, as only the young can be, and staring in awe, at the scene unfolding below.  I saw a boy, small and wiry, with a pair of binoculars and a small camera clutched in his hand.  He was very close to the edge of a very long drop! I turned my head to shout to him to be careful, but the wind chased my warning and swirled it away. That boy then did something incredibly stupid, he jumped over the edge! I ran, although I have no idea why, there was no point was there? As I got closer, I could see this boy, laid on his stomach, about eight feet down, on a grassy ledge.  I shouted, but to no avail, he was concentrating hard on his subject, a big, fat, incredibly fluffy, Fulmar chick, seemingly glued to its ledge. They stared at each other, the camera clicked and the spell was broken. A shock of incredibly thick dark brown hair swivelled on his neck, revealing twinkling brown eyes and a large beaky nose. It was the first time I ticked Simon Aspinall.
We talked, in fact over the years; we talked a lot, about pretty much everything. But on that particular day, we talked birds. Birds, we had seen, birds we wanted to see on Shetland and very soon, global birding, which was unusual in those days. This boy had a keen intellect, questions rapidly falling out of his mouth, one after another. It wasn’t my first visit to Shetland, so I could tell him the best place to see breeding Red necked Phalaropes and that frosty ghost from the high Arctic, breeding Snowy Owls!
We returned to mainland Shetland and went our separate ways. I was touring all the main islands on a bicycle! Simon saw his birds and I guess he didn’t forget me. I didn’t see him for a while, but he moved from down south, to Norwich, to study at the University of East Anglia. We bumped into each other at rare birds along the Norfolk coast, had a chat & went our separate ways. One day I remember him telling me (as we watched a Red breasted Flycatcher behind Whalsey Hills) that Cley was the place to be, declaring triumphantly, that it was the best place to see rare birds on mainland UK. Well, I was having none of it! As a proud Yorkshire man, Spurn was my hunting ground & of course, the best place to find rare birds! That argument came up again & again over the years. We never did resolve it! He said he would like to live there one day, but not before travel, to see all birds in the world! Wouldn’t that be something?
We once again drifted apart. Having birded Western Europe extensively, I turned my attention to the new world. First the States, then ten months in Central America, where I met an American birder, his name was Theodore, but he liked to be called Ted, between beers, he told me that Peru was the place to see numbers of birds. I listened carefully; he seemed to know his stuff. (In later years he became a legend on the Neo-tropical birding scene). I returned to England, to work double shifts at Scunthorpe Steel Works. I worked hard & saved hard, just occasionally going to see the odd rare bird. I bumped into Simon; he was conducting summer contract work for the RSPB. He had been travelling as well. We compared notes & of course our lists! An activity which kept repeating itself over the coming years! I told him my plans for conquering Peru! He smiled; he had a gleam in his eyes! The competition was on!
Peru! Now there’s a place! I never did see Paddington Bear, but I did see Spectacled & along the way amassed an impressive tally of 1,248 species of birds. Regular airmail letters (remember those)? stoked Simon’s fires. He flew out with Dave Willis; they had no idea where to find me, as by the time the correspondence arrived in England, I had migrated elsewhere! The night was a long one, I had been out on the town.  I had decided to leave Peru. I was in Lima staying at a little hostel on the Plaza del Armas. I hit the sack. I was woken by English voices talking loudly in the hallway. I remember thinking that one of them sounded just like Dave Willis, (who has a very distinctive voice), I was obviously dreaming. I went back to sleep.  The morning dawned, my need for caffeine increased. I nipped downstairs for my breakfast fix & stared straight into the eyes of Simon & Dave!
Sometimes fate takes a hand, we all talked about our plans. Simon grilled me over the locations of rare birds, in particular Diademed Sandpiper Plover.  It was on my list already! I had a good site, just a little foray, up to 15,000 feet, on the western side of the Andes. The car was hired, we piled in. We birded all the different elevations along the way, amassing an impressive tally of species. We hit the altiplano at Marcocomapochta. The air was thin, we struggled physically, but the birding was excellent, seeing Puna Tinamou & Royal Cinclodes along the way. I spied my tarn; it was icy cold, dull & looked lifeless. My companions looked at each other; they looked tired & a little disappointed. It was then, that I saw a brown stone move, ever so slightly! I picked up my bins, “better add it to your list boys!” Simon looked down his scope, he smiled.
We returned to Lima after a couple of days, me to fly home to earn some cash. Simon & Dave continued their trip. We arranged to meet up in the UK to compare notes. We did, we had some beers, and we talked. I was shortly to return to South America for further neo-tropical delights. Simon was still working for the RSPB, mainly in the summer months with frequent trips to SE Asia. Both lists were increasing at a similar pace.
I returned to the UK, hitchhiking to Shetland, with the last leg on the St. Clair. I was broke, but species rich! Simon had been kicking around Shetland & northern Scotland, doing various surveys. It was a wonderful place to be, wild, free & very exciting. At the time, all of us wanted to stay forever. Simon loved Shetland, his stint as assistant warden on Fair Isle, merely cemented his love affair with the place. His climbing ability & agility (which I witnessed so clearly, on our first meeting), stood him in excellent stead. He climbed and ringed literally hundreds of seabirds. He was good, really good, but he took chances. One of his friends, another assistant warden, took one chance too many & slid to his death, on the rocks below, just metres from Simon’s perch. We talked. I think this was the moment, that we became firm friends, not just buddies, but someone to confide in. We all have our dark moments (I am having one now) but sometimes, you have to have someone there. I just happened to be that someone.
Shetland was good to me; I earned money, big money. We worked hard, but my god, we played hard! Three hours sleep, turned out to be the norm! We were young, Simon said I was bulletproof.  Whether I was or wasn’t, is not the point, we really lived life to the full. We had a ball. However some of our friends did not last the course, this heady mix of work, freely available sex (yes, I am ashamed to say, we did keep count, we had a tally behind the wardrobe) & a wide variety of stimulants, meant that evolution was in action. It really was survival of the fittest. I had the constitution of an ox; Simon was just wiser & more restrained, than the rest of us. Cracks started to appear, it was time to move on.
I went back to Hull & I met a girl. She changed my life. She still does to this day, her name is Carol. Simon was working (birding) and birding in his spare time. His list got bigger. The years went by, Simon & I met at rare birds, dotted around the country, but we drifted. Our lives going in different directions.  The James family went to Africa, to Zimbabwe; it was another life changing moment for me. It was the beginnings of my love affair with the African continent.  This continues to this very day. On returning to the UK, we again met up; rare birds being the common theme. But there was a distance between us now, things had changed, we drifted apart.
In 1992, I took a job in Abu Dhabi. I quickly met a number of very interesting people: Peter Hellyer; Rob Quested & Dick Hornby amongst them. All three, were destined to be important to Simon through the coming years. Rob & his wife, Penny, urged the James’s, to join the Marina Club in town, this we did. There was a quiz, with cheap drinks every week. We didn’t need another nudge in that direction! One night, Dick brought with him, a so called young ornithologist, he had just started work for NARC, (now the EAD).  I saw the same eyes, the beaky nose & the smile! We went birding together.
On looking back today, it is hard to believe how exciting the UAE was in those days.  The people were also exciting, there were some real characters! The good times rolled. Simon & I did what we have always done, we went birding together! A typical weekend routine was Friday, at Al Wathba, surely the greatest vagrant trap ever! Rob, Jenny & Lynda were ever present, a little later, Andrew Twyman emerged.  We all loved birding & we all enjoyed each other’s company. We saw a lot of great birds, often followed by mid morning breakfasts, followed by Hobbit-like, second breakfasts! Andrew & Simon (& sometimes Rob) had a strange ritual, they drank tea! But not any old tea, some of the concoctions coming out of their thermos flasks was truly odious! I would describe it, as milky brown, strong sludge. The kind you find, at an old fashioned English sewage works! Jenny, Lynda & I did not succumb to such horrible temptations! We just drank beer! Simon, also had another strange quirk, sandwich making! He wasn’t very good at it, always disorganised & some of the combinations he brought with him, were truly remarkable! On one memorable occasion, he had two bread rolls not cut open, but secured by two elastic bands at each end, with salami & cheese in the middle!
It is difficult to believe now, that with a few changes in personnel, this lasted for twelve years! We had a fantastic time, with some really great people, but one day, stands above all others. The Pacific Swift day. Simon spotted a large swift, I spotted the white rump. We cheered, we went together to celebrate, I never made it! The split second after that swift vanished over the ridge, I turned to Simon, beaming! My expression changed, as searing heat engulfed my big toe. My vision blurred & I knew I was feinting, I went down!  Now Simon was a pretty good athlete, a good rugby player (scrum half) & a decent cricketer (great in the field, a good spin bowler & could bat a bit). But he never caught me! He missed me! I later learnt, that this was a cunning experiment, to see how far my hard, Yorkshire head, could penetrate the fragile desert surface! The experiment was a success, my impact was measurable! I had just been stung by a scorpion! I still can’t believe he missed me! Simon did somewhat redeem himself, a few years later in Turkey, in a search for Radde’s Accentor. I slipped in a rocky gorge, going backwards fast! He managed to catch my shoulder, to slow the impact, just before I spilt my meagre brains over those cosy Ottoman rocks. I was hurt & hurt bad, but without Simon being there, I would have been a lot worse.
Simon was much more than a birding companion; he was part of the family. He was often to be found sitting (sometimes slumped, my fault again), over a chair in the lounge. His sharp wit, sardonic humour & insights, were all a part of our household. My wife & all the girls loved him. He made our home & our lives better. The James household was a very happy place to be.
I knew something was wrong. I saw Simon virtually every day; little things at first, gave him away. He told me it was a football injury, sustained while messing about in Qatar on a baseline survey. I knew it was a lie, a little later I found out why. One day, after birding around Khalidiyah, he suggested a breakfast at Mugg & Bean. I agreed, but was curious; it was usually breakfast at my place, with Carol & the girls. This was new & a departure from previous behaviour. The next two hours were all about pain. He told me everything & it wasn’t good. I questioned him, asking him if he had done this & that, but he was a smart guy, he had covered all the bases. Motor neurone disease is a very damming diagnosis, it is a death sentence. It was hard to look him in the eye. He told me to keep this to myself. I said, I had to tell Carol, (as I tell her everything), he reluctantly agreed. Simon did tell two other people, (who, I will not name here), we all lived with this, for nearly three years, but slowly, Simon’s problems could not be overlooked.
Our family was not without our own problems. In 2008, Carol was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer. It was a bolt from the blue, or was it the black? It shook me to the core, two of the most important people in my life, in big trouble. I always remember Christmas Day that year. I was working & something important was going on, I couldn’t duck away. Simon drove Carol to Al Ain for treatment. Carol had to have someone with her at this stage, as she couldn’t drive back alone. It was a funny kind of Christmas, but one I cherished. The amount of love flying around was stupendous. I smiled, Simon smiled back, he knew.
Did I tell you the trips we shared? The laughter? The nights at the Corniche Social Club watching the football? It was always Rob & Simon, against me; they were Arsenal lovers, me the opposite, a Spurs fan. We were all one; Carol would often join us later. When one looks back, I only remember good times, no, great times.
Into the Void was a great movie; Carol & I are just entering that void now. It seems supremely selfish to think of oneself, at this time. But I cannot help thinking of all the things Simon & I should have done. Over thirty five years, we did a hell of a lot together, but there was room for more. Our biggest regret is that we couldn’t be with Simon, this final two months. We will regret that fact, for the rest of our lives.
This is a very personal, one sided look, on Simon’s life. For this I make no apology. He touched many people’s lives, in many places, all were beneficiaries. When I am next in the desert, on the top of a mega-dune, I will look at the sky, get my bed roll out and imagine another star twinkling down at me. I will turn over and go to sleep, content, in the fact, that I am not alone.

Steve James.


  1. Hi Steve,

    Still remember the day I met Simon. The day he was playing with Mariam (My second daughter). A great guy indeed!

  2. Remembering Simon on his birthday, I miss him so much. forever missed. xxx Creena & Sasha

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  4. Steve, I don't know if you still read this, but just found this tribute while researching a podcast - beautifully done. Also, I'm so sorry to read that Carol passed away in 2013 - I wish I'd known and had said something at the time. She was a remarkable, wonderful woman. You must miss her incredibly. All the best, Charlie Moores

    1. Hi Charlie,
      Great to hear from you after all this time. Yes both Carol & Simon are no longer with us. Read Carol & my story at Carol's Rest on this blog, July 2014.
      Hope things are going well for you & yours.
      Keep in touch